“Mr. Boston”: Meet the Man Who Secretly Helped Daniel Ellsberg Leak Pentagon Papers to the Press

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Historian Gar Alperovitz has revealed for the first time the key role he and a handful of other activists played in helping whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg leak to journalists the Pentagon Papers—a 7,000-page classified history outlining the true extent of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Daniel Ellsberg told The New Yorker the secret role this group played was so crucial in releasing the Pentagon Papers that he gave them a code name: “The Lavender Hill Mob.” Alperovitz went by the alias “Mr. Boston.” Ellsberg told The New Yorker, “Gar took care of all the cloak-and-dagger stuff.” We speak to historian and political economist Gar Alperovitz about why he is going public now.

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Video squareStoryMay 18, 2018Whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg: Civil Disobedience Against Vietnam War Led Me to Leak Pentagon Papers
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at a decades-old mystery behind who helped Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 leak the Pentagon Papers, the 7,000-page classified history outlining the true extent of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. At the time, the Pentagon Papers represented the biggest leak of classified documents in history. Ellsberg once faced espionage charges and possibly life in prison for leaking the documents, which he photocopied while working as an analyst at the RAND Corporation. The Nixon administration even made attempts to ruin Ellsberg’s life, going so far as to break into his psychiatrist’s office with the hope of uncovering incriminating information. Henry Kissinger dubbed Ellsberg “the most dangerous man in America.” That description later became the title of a documentary about Dan Ellsberg.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: It was the evening of October 1st, 1969, when I first smuggled several hundred pages of top-secret documents out of my safe at the RAND Corporation. The study contained 47 volumes, 7,000 pages. My plan was to xerox the study and reveal the secret history of the Vietnam War to the American people.

NEWSCASTER: The FBI was trying to find out who gave The New York Times a copy of a Pentagon secret study.

MIKE GRAVEL: Pow!, like a thunderclap, you get The New York Times publishing the Pentagon Papers, and the country is panicking.

HENRY KISSINGER: This is an attack on the whole integrity of government. If whole file cabinets can be stolen and then made available to the press, you can’t have orderly government anymore.

HEDRICK SMITH: I mean, it was just staggering. The raw, top-secret, eyes-only documents.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: I think it is time in this country to quit making national heroes out of those who steal secrets and publish them in the newspaper.

PATRICIA ELLSBERG: In the first year of marriage, we’re talking about him going to prison for the rest of his life.

REPORTER: Dr. Ellsberg, do you have any concern about the possibility of going to prison for this?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Wouldn’t you go to prison to help end this war?

EGILBUDKROGH JR.: We felt so strongly that we were dealing with a national security crisis. Henry Kissinger said that Dr. Daniel Ellsberg was “the most dangerous man in America” and he had to be stopped.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from The Most Dangerous Man in America, the documentary about Dan Ellsberg’s life. While the Nixon administration attempted to send Ellsberg to life in prison, authorities never charged anyone with helping him. As interest in the Pentagon Papers grows thanks to the new Steven Spielberg film The Post, about The Washington Post's role in revealing the Pentagon Papers, one of Dan Ellsberg's co-conspirators has come out of the shadows. His name, Gar Alperovitz.

For more than 40 years, Alperovitz kept a close secret. In 1971, he clandestinely helped Ellsberg distribute sections of the Pentagon Papers to 19 newspapers across the country, at a time when the Nixon administration was trying to block publication. Alperovitz would go on to become a well-known historian, professor and political economist, but he kept his role in the Pentagon Papers leak a secret, until this week, when he spoke to The New Yorker magazine. The identities of who else worked with Gar Alperovitz to aid Ellsberg remains a secret. Dan Ellsberg told The New Yorker the secret role this group played was so crucial in releasing the Pentagon Papers he gave them a code name: “The Lavender Hill Mob.” Alperovitz went by the alias “Mr. Boston.” Ellsberg told The New Yorker, quote, “Gar took care of all the cloak-and-dagger stuff.”

Well, Gar Alperovitz, aka Mr. Boston, now joins us from Washington, D.C.

Gar, welcome to Democracy Now!

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how you came to be Dan Ellsberg—Dan Ellsberg’s conduit to the newspapers and why you wanted to play this role.

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Well, I had been both working in the government—I had worked in the Senate—and I saw the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution come in, which was a fraudulent resolution authorizing powerful action by the government, no matter what they wanted to do. We tried to stop it when I was a Senate aide. But I had also written a book about the bombing of Hiroshima, and I knew something about the way insiders actually made decisions—in my view, against the public interest—and then lied in public.

I met Dan quite by accident. He invited me to dinner, and we hit it off. And one thing led to another. The next day or two, I was presented with the fact that these papers were available, and we could make them public. So, the question was: Should we do that, and could I help? And I decided, obviously, it was an important thing to do. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which had authorized this massive war, very much like what happened in Iraq, was a phony, phony resolution based on facts that were distorted. Thousands of people—in the end, millions of people—were going to die. And it was important to try to do what one could to stop the war. And what I could do to help was help with the paper distribution.

AMY GOODMAN: So how did you do that?

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Well, the question was that—you know, this is 7,000 pages of paper. And Dan was very, very anxious, understandably, to get the story out, once it had been blocked at The New York Times. And his idea was to just give it all out. And I urged him—

AMY GOODMAN: And explain that, for—especially for young people who don’t understand what you mean by it was blocked at The New York Times. We’re talking about 1971. Dan himself had gotten these papers to The New York Times and wanted, you know, the stories about them published. But explain what happened next.

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Well, the Nixon administration went to court and stopped The New York Times from publishing. So that was a major, major infringement of the constitutional right of a free press, but nonetheless there was a stop. And then the question was: It was stopped; how could you actually bring the story to the American public, of many, many clandestine decisions, in which decision-makers in the government knew that they were doing something that was almost impossible and many people’s lives would be lost and there was great deception to the public? That’s what the Pentagon Papers show. So, then the question was: If it went on to—could other papers, which had not yet been stopped, because they’d done nothing yet—could they publish the papers? And the next one was The Washington Post. And we got the papers to The Washington Post, and they published, and then they were stopped. And we were trying to keep that process going as long as we could.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what happened with The Washington Post. Now, there’s more attention because of Steven Spielberg’s film The Post, that stars Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. But talk about how contact with The Washington Post was made.

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Well, it was very simple to. You had to reach people. This is the day before—you know, before cellphones. And I actually went around the area, in the Boston area, using coin phones, the public phones that were everywhere. And I called up, and I had the alias or the nickname “Mr. Boston.” And I spoke with someone there, Ben Bagdikian, ultimately, and said—and arranged a meeting, because Ben actually knew Dan. He had been at the RAND Corporation. Ben came up, and Dan met with him in a hotel room—a motel, as I recall—and gave him the papers. So that was the next step. And then, of course, they were stopped, and we moved on to the next newspaper. So, it was very straightforward, so long as you could use pay telephones, which you obviously don’t see much of anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to go to a clip of Dan Ellsberg talking about that moment, but first we’re going to break. This is Democracy Now! And we’re speaking with Mr. Boston. Well, that was the code name for Gar Alperovitz, the historian and political economist, who has just revealed he was one of the people who secretly helped Dan Ellsberg leak the 7,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers, to get them to newspapers as President Nixon tried to stop the publication of the Pentagon Papers at The New York Times. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “El Hielo,” or ”ICE,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement, by Mexican-American L.A.-based band La Santa Cecilia, singing here in our Democracy Now! studios. In our next segment, you will hear from a woman who has taken sanctuary in a Carbondale, Colorado, church, for fear of deportation. But we’re continuing with Mr. Boston right now, the alias for Gar Alperovitz, who now has come out, this week, as one of the people who helped Dan Ellsberg get the Pentagon Papers out to newspapers around the country. I want to turn to Pentagon Papers whistleblower Dan Ellsberg speaking in 2007. Here he explains how he managed to elude the FBI and get the papers, the Pentagon Papers, to The Washington Post editor Ben Bagdikian in 1971.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I was not in a position to travel at this point. So I did arrange with a former colleague from RAND, Ben Bagdikian, an editor of The Washington Post who had spent a year or two at RAND as a consultant—mic’s down? Can you hear me? OK—Ben Bagdikian, I said, I knew. So I called him up and arranged to have him come to Boston—yeah, it was a colorful story, which I think is told in the thing you have there. He came to Boston, Cambridge. We took a room at the Treadway Inn near Harvard Square, and my wife and I brought these boxes of ill-assorted papers, tremendous stuff we hadn’t collated ideally, to him, and we spent the night with him collating and putting them in an order that he could take back with him. And in the morning he had this big box. He didn’t have—he needed a cord for the box and asked the Treadway, and the motel owner said, “Well, somebody’s been tethering a dog outside. I can give you the dog cord.” So we tied up the box, and he went off and put it on.

My wife and I looked at the television before we went home. We had been all night on this now. This was about 7:00, 8:00, 7:30 in the morning, and there was our home being—with some FBI agents knocking on the door on live television. And they were knocking on the door, so we thought, “Hmm, maybe this isn’t the best time, you know, to go back home, actually.” And what had happened was that Sid Zion, who was mad at the Times for having fired him, had rather quickly found out who their source was, and to get back at them, he had revealed it on a radio show, the Barry Graves show, the night before. So the FBI was at my door, and having seen it on television, I was now in a position to not be caught and to put out the other copies.

Well, the reason—so we didn’t go home. We went underground in Cambridge. For the next 13 days, the FBI conducted what the papers said was the biggest manhunt since the Lindbergh kidnapping, and they were—we were in Cambridge—they were all over the world, in the south of France, in [inaudible] in California. I had a feeling there was a good deal of junketing going on, actually, by the FBI looking for us, but meanwhile we were putting it out to these other newspapers.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was Dan Ellsberg describing this to thousands of Unitarians in 2007 who were celebrating the history of the Beacon Press. This is a little complicated here, but follow me. When Dan Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers to Ben Bagdikian of The Washington Post, one of the conditions or a favor he asked Bagdikian was to get these papers to Senator Mike Gravel, who could then read them into the Congressional Record. He was a junior senator from Alaska at the time. And then, in so doing, all of the papers, not just articles in The New York Times and Washington Post, all the thousands of pages of the Pentagon Papers, could be released. And they would be published by the Beacon Press. You can see our whole show on this with Mike Gravel, Dan Ellsberg and Robert West, the publisher of Beacon Press, together as they told this story. But, Gar Alperovitz, as Dan Ellsberg just described this manhunt, the largest since the Lindbergh kidnapping, what role did you play in that, as he was underground with Patricia, his wife, in Cambridge?

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Well, the first decision was what to do with 7,000 pages of documents. And Dan was—understandably, wanted to get all of this out to the public. And I convinced him that—I thought if we broke it up, we could keep the story going maybe 10, 15 weeks, by moving it from one newspaper to another newspaper to another newspaper, and in bite-size chunks that people could understand, but also it would keep the story going as they closed down one newspaper after another. And that’s just what we did.

And I managed that process with the help of two or three graduate students and other people who were involved in getting food to Dan, getting housing—making sure there was housing, taking the papers to reporters in ways that could not be detected. They did the—someone called some of them “runners,” but I think they did more. They were very courageous people, taking these secret papers, top-secret papers, and getting them to the reporters in ways that would keep them secret until the reporters.

AMY GOODMAN: The late, great historian Howard Zinn played a role in this also. Did Marcus Raskin, who recently died, the founder—one of the founders of Institute for Policy Studies, play a role?

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Well, there is a—I think that Marcus actually gave the papers independently to The New York Times. But I haven’t yet run down exactly the relationship between how Dan gave them to the Times and Marc gave them to the Times. I think probably both did in one way or another, but the timing is not clear to me yet.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you played a key role in getting an interview with Walter Cronkite of Dan Ellsberg, is that right?

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Yes, I arranged the—they were very happy and anxious to do it, but I arranged the meeting with Cronkite. Again, we had to bring Cronkite to Cambridge, Mass., and do it in a way that would not be followed and traced. So, one of the friends offered their living room for a television interview, and then one of the people who—one of the graduate students took Cronkite and his team around Cambridge from the airport, from Boston to Cambridge, making sure they weren’t followed, and then finally bringing him to this friend’s house where the interview took place.

AMY GOODMAN: The code names—Mr. Boston, the Lavender Hill Mob—talk about how you all came up with these.

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Mr. Boston was a spontaneous name that I just picked out of the air, for reasons of—I have no idea why I did that. The Lavender Hill Mob was something I think came later, as we looked back on it, in a way that this very small group of people tried to help Dan get a serious distribution strategy going.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Gar, can you talk about why you’ve decided to come forward now, during this period, this—what?—with the first anniversary of the inauguration of President Trump? Is that playing a role?

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Well, two things, I think, brought me to this judgment it was time to actually talk about this. One, it came back into the news because of the big movie, The Post, which describes some of this, which had been out of the news and out of consciousness for a long, long time. So, it offered an opportunity to think about this subject in a very powerful way, because lots of folks have seen that movie, and it raised the subject. And secondly—so the context was there.

And secondly, the dangers of this administration. Particularly, I’ve written about nuclear weapons a great deal. The dangers of this administration, I think it’s time for people to really think through what they can do, however small, however they want, to find a way, to actually find, personally, to do something to try to begin to build up a more democratic option and a way to avoid some of the real dangers. The possibility of nuclear war in Korea is a real possibility. There has been nuclear war in Asia, obviously: the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which is an area that I’ve written a great deal about. People, I think, need to think seriously about where they—what they can do to make for a more peaceful and a world that doesn’t repeat those mistakes.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of nuclear war, again, raised once again by President Trump, you know, talking about expanding the nuclear arsenal, in his State of the Union address this week, and reportedly saying to his chiefs of—to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “If we have nuclear weapons, why don’t we use them?” You are a longtime historian, have written eloquently about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Can you talk about this? Why not use them?

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Well, they are—the weapons we have today are so many times more powerful than anything was used in World War II at Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and, I would mention, at that point, against the will of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all of whom came out after the war, all the top military leaders, with the one exception, publicly, after the war, saying the bombing was totally unnecessary in Hiroshima. We are now in a case where nuclear weapons are many, many, many times more powerful, and many, many thousands of them, and very, very dangerous because they are so easily launched.

And my hope is, both a public action will begin to build up, understanding that this is a threshold that should not be crossed, and that I hope, actually, some people within the government, just as during World War II the Joint Chiefs tried to stop that action, which was unnecessary and they knew was unnecessary, I would hope people begin to think, “What could we do?” What could they can do personally? And I think that’s an individual decision for everyone to make, what kind of things they can do in the circumstances they face. But I think the trillion dollars that’s now about to be spent to upgrade and increase the nuclear weapon supply—a trillion dollars—we are going into a whole new phase and with a government that is, so far, irresponsible in so many other ways, that this is a very dangerous period of American history.

AMY GOODMAN: You write a lot about changing the system, a lot about economics. Has that also played a role, given the passage of the tax law? You discuss the issue of inequality. We’re seeing the greatest growth of inequality in this country than any time in history.

GAR ALPEROVITZ: I don’t think we’re going to change what we do in foreign policy in a fundamental way, until we change what we do in the system. And I think we’re at a place where we’re facing what I would call a slow-boiling systemic crisis—traditional corporate capitalism producing great inequality, ecological destruction, increasing tensions in racial matters and gender matters, violence abroad. That process, the danger of slipping over into some form of formal or informal repression is very real. On the other hand, if the corporate capitalist system fails, the state socialist system also fails.

The basis of a new society and a new direction is really thinking through what can be a genuinely community-sustaining, peaceful vision of what the next system is. I’m a historian and political economist, and I see it as: How do we build the next two to three decades? Maybe taking off from what Bernie has shown us, taking off from what activists in the black community and the gay community and the feminist movement, the environmental community. There is a building-up process that has to go well beyond the politics of today towards a transformative vision that is much different than the vision that now supports the nuclear weapons and the military outreach. I think we’re in that period, and it could be a long period. But the lesson of all this, for me, is that we need to go both deeper and more boldly and begin building right from the bottom up, with a view to understanding—let me say it carefully: Systems change all the time in history. I think we have the opportunity to establish the conditions, if we’re serious, of laying down the foundations for a transformation. I didn’t say change the system tomorrow, I said building the basis of a transformation.

AMY GOODMAN: Gar, as we wrap up, are you proud of what you did in helping Dan Ellsberg get the Pentagon Papers out?

GAR ALPEROVITZ: “Proud” is a funny word. I did what I thought was necessary, what was important to do. I don’t think of it as pride, but I’m glad I did it.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us. Gar Alperovitz, historian, political economist, revealed this week he secretly helped Dan Ellsberg leak the Pentagon Papers. Gar Alperovitz is author, most recently, of Principles of a Pluralist Commonwealth and co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative and co-chair of its Next System Project.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to an Episcopal parsonage—to a Unitarian parsonage, to speak with a woman in sanctuary. Stay with us.

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